Brave New Barbera

Posted by David on 27th Apr 2017

Piedmont (Piemonte) is a key region for any wine lover. Located in northwest Italy, bordering both France and Switzerland, and surrounded by the Alps, it’s a stunning landscape, home not only to some of the world’s greatest wines, but also to some of the best everyday quaffers.

The most famous wines of Piedmont are undoubtedly Barolo and Barbaresco, both made from Nebbiolo. Despite being synonymous with the region, they only account for about 3% of production.

Barbera is the region’s most widely grown grape, but has traditionally been a workhorse variety, considered inferior to Nebbiolo. But as the Oxford Companion to Wine notes: “No grape has known such a dramatic upgrade in its fortunes and image in the last 20 years than Barbera in Piemonte.”

Barbera d’Alba is a DOC (second tier in Italian appellation hierarchy) within Piedmont, that’s well known for its Barbera. Alba is a town, as well as the surrounding area in the Langhe hills. Historically Alba is prime Barolo country, its best sites planted with Nebbiolo; a wise move considering the stratospheric prices that Barolo commands. But there are sites in Alba which are too cool for the late ripening Nebbiolo, and it’s here that Barbera, which ripens about 2 weeks earlier than Nebbiolo, is planted.

Traditionally Barbera was made into a cheap everyday wine, while Barolo was expensive and made to be cellared for years. Then in the 1980s, things changed. Winemaker Giacomo Bologna started experimenting with single vineyard Barbera that he picked later and aged for longer in small new oak barrels. These techniques had never been tried and the result was a small revolution in the quality of Barbera.

Barbera is still considered a quaffer, but the light, tart wines of the past have gone, replaced by lively mid-weight wines, with lovely juicy red fruit and a skilful balance of sweet, bitter and savoury.

“At their best, Barbera wines are deeply coloured, fresh and relatively soft wines with bright cherry fruit flavours.” Wine Grapes, Jancis Robinson.

Unlike Nebbiolo, there are no mouth-wrenching tannins. Barbera is characterised by gentle tannins and an abundance of crisp, energetic acid and most entry level examples are made without oak, accentuating their fresh, bright appeal. Not surprisingly much of the best Barbera comes from the top Barolo makers.

Here are a few Barberas that I’m enjoying at the moment.

Mauro Molino Barbera d'Alba 2015

Mauro Molino Barbera d'Alba 2015

The 12ha family estate of Mauro Molino is located in the La Morra district of Piedmont. Mauro Molino graduated from winemaking studies in 1973 and after spending time with other producers building his experience, returned to his family vineyards, making his first wine in 1982. His son Matteo and daughter Martina now also work alongside him.

Molino’s Barolos are already highly sought after and regularly score 90+ from critics, including Robert Parker, James Suckling, Decanter Magazine and Wine Spectator.

Mauro Molino is “a relatively new and red-hot producer,” Wine Spectator.

The Barbera d’Alba is an entry-level wine from Molino. It’s fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks and aged for a further 6 months in stainless steel, before bottling. It’s shown great consistency from vintage to vintage, offering a fresh, juicy, vibrant style that I really like.

The wine is crystal clear and an attractive deep ruby colour. It’s a lean, aromatic and yet savoury wine. As it opens up, the fruit really kicks in with bright cherry, raspberry and red berry notes emerging. Being Italian, it also has some liquorice, spice and tariness. The viscosity of the wine is a pleasant surprise and gives more weight than you might expect. Bright, fresh, balanced acidity makes it a great food wine that’s delicious and approachable. And at a great price.

“Deep violet red colour, fine and fruity bouquet with scents of ripe red berries and minerals. A fresh wine, mellow and persistent.” Winemaker’s notes.

Clean, fresh, classic Piedmont Barbera. You’ll find it at Ucello, Ivy’s top Italian joint for $75 a bottle.

I can offer it for $30 a bottle. Order online

Marina Coppi Sant’ Andrea Barbera 2015

Marina Coppi Sant’ Andrea Barbera 2015

Vigne Marina Coppi was established in 2003 in the town of Castellania, situated in the hills in south-eastern Piedmont. The winery is located at no. 5 Via Sant’Andrea, hence the name of the wine.

The estate was set up by Marina Coppi, daughter of cycling legend Fausto Coppi, aka Il Camionissimo or champion of champions. His claims to fame are that he won the Giro d’Italia 5 times (1940, ’47, ’49, ’52, & ’53) and the Tour de France twice (1949 & ’52). He was voted Italy’s greatest sportsman of the 20th Century. He also had an extramarital affair that gripped the nation, but I digress.

Marina’s son, Francesco Bellocchio and his wife Anna now run the small, 4 hectare estate, which is planted mainly with Barbera, but also includes Nebbiolo, Croatina (red), Favorita (white) and Timorasso (white).

This wine is 90% Barbera and 10% Croatina. The grapes were handpicked, before being fermented in temperature-controlled stainless steel. To maintain it’s freshness the wine saw no oak ageing, instead it spent about 9 months in stainless steel, before being bottled.

I found this wine softer, darker and more generous, with much more fruit. It’s a bit more like an Aussie Shiraz.

“Intense and vivacious ruby-red in colour. The bouquet has good intensity with hints of cherry and wild strawberries. On the palate, full, satisfying and fresh. Best served with white and red meats, elaborate fish dishes, fresh cheese. Ideal with agnolotti and raw salame," Winemaker’s notes.

Dark purpley red. On the nose: mouthwatering aromas of cherry, strawberry and spice. On the palate: the fruit becomes richer stewed strawberries and liquorice with a touch of pepper. Supple and delicious, with finely balanced acid. Soft powdery tannins and a beautifully dry finish. A fresh and modern take on Barbera, this is a great all rounder, very versatile.

You’ll find it on the multi award-winning wine list at the wonderful Italian restaurant ‘Pilu at Freshwater’ for $80 a bottle.

I can offer it for $34 a bottle. Order online

Massolino Barbera d’Alba 2015

Massolino Barbera d’Alba 2015

Like most top Barbera producers, Massolino is getting praise from high profile critics, including Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. Massolino was awarded Winery of the Year 2010’ by the US based Wine & Spirits Magazine.

The estate was founded in 1896 by Giovanni Massolino, who it is claimed, was the first person to bring electricity to the picturesque medieval village of Serralunga d’Alba. Surrounding this the village is one of the best sub-zones of the Barolo DOC. It’s here the estate’s greatest asset, its prized 23 hectares of vineyards sits, and where the fruit for this wine is sourced.

The past 10-15 years has seen significant improvements in both the vineyards and winery, and today the wines of Massolino sit comfortably among the finest of the region - “they are wines of wonderful purity and elegance,” Bibendum Wine Co.

The fruit for the wine is handpicked from vines ranging from 10-35 years of age. The fruit is fermented in stainless steel, followed by a short period of maturation in stainless steel.

It’s the quality of the vineyards and their fruit that sets this wine apart. It combines freshness, structure and acidity with generosity of fruit.

“Savoury, sweet and refreshing… it’s so approachable as a young wine, all the while with enough structure to keep you on your toes. Pure, black raspberry scented and engaging, it also illustrates the elegance that is so typical of this producer's wines.” Bibendum Wine Co.

“Vinous notes of red cherry, plum and dried blackberry rise from the glass. A bright spot of acidity adds energy and zest to the finish.” Monica Larner,

“A pure, focussed red, this displays flavours of violet, black currant, almond and spice. Racy and harmonious, this ends with a long, fruit-stained aftertaste. Drink now through 2020.” 90 points, Wine Spectator, reviewed Feb 2017.

A great example of Barbera that's absolutely delicious.

I can offer it for $45 a bottle. Order online